Back in December of 2009, a federal appeals court in California said law enforcement personnel should not use a taser unless the intended target is posing an immediate threat.
Officers cannot shoot someone with a Taser, the court ruled, if they are just acting erratic or refusing to obey orders. This ruling by the San Francisco appeals court could set a new standard for law enforcement training concerning this "less-than-lethal" weapon.Could have set a new standard, but didn't, as statistics show. Although peace-loving citizens throughout the country regarded the ruling as a major step forward (or maybe back, toward something resembling the long-lost civilization that used to be America), others were indifferent to it. In Austin, Texas, KXAN interviewed that city's Commander John Hutto, who said,
There's no reason to think that it will change the way we conduct business or alter our policies or procedures… It certainly prevents many many more injuries than it's ever caused…Yeah, right. The taser has prevented so much mayhem that would otherwise have been committed by grannies and wheelchair crips and unarmed kids and naked crazy folks. Who could make such a claim with a straight face? Well, Commander Hutto has no problem with championing the taser, even when a federal judge says different. So far, we're getting a picture of a man who is not overly impressed by court rulings. This may be a personal trend.
John A. Salazar wrote about some Austin police officers who thought a couple of teenagers were checking out vehicles with an eye to potentially breaking into them. There was an abortive car chase and a shootout that left a 20-year-old dead, and a 16-year-old wounded by police gunfire, and an officer slightly injured.
The incident happened in June of this year, not long before homeless schizophrenic Kelly Thomas was tasered 4 or 5 times and fatally beaten by police in Fullerton, California. Did the word go out this summer to police nationwide, that suspicious activity around parked cars is a great excuse to beat the shit out of people? And the beauty part is, nobody can ever prove the victims were not doing something suspicious! Anyone who gets anywhere near a parked car is fair game for cops eager for a workout and a chance to put some mileage on their shiny expensive new gear. Let's rock'n'roll!
Last month in Austin, the grand jury who looked into it couldn't find anything to charge the 16-year-old with, and Assistant Chief John Hutto didn't like that. His reaction was:
This young man whose actions led to the injury of an officer, basically will not have to answer to those actions.The comment adds a brushstroke to the portrait of a man who sees the judicial branch as a nuisance, and the police as always right. Exactly whose actions can be said to lead to what, in situations like this? Sounds like the only thing the 16-year-old could possibly have been charged with was injuring an officer who wanted to charge him with -- with what? Thinking about doing something wrong? The 20-year-old was never charged with anything, but he got the death penalty.
Last winter, the city of Austin received official word on the use of force by its police during 2009. Tony Plohetski wrote,
Austin police reported using more force against suspects in 2009, an increase that officials attribute to a change in how officers document such instances… The number of reports rose to 1,703 last year from 1,152 in 2008 after police began requiring officers to electronically log such incidents from their patrol car computers instead of on paper…Assistant Police Chief John Hutto is quoted as saying that before the new procedures were introduced,
There was a greater chance that something could get misplaced.An ACLU member, in private correspondence, characterized this as a "the dog ate our reports" excuse for the formerly less conscientious recording of police violence.
Online, we can read a paper written by Chief Hutto in pursuit of a post-graduate degree. It's about the dangers faced by police, and it takes a close look at Austin's new Risk Management Bureau. The Introduction says,
Law enforcement agencies and their personnel engage in a variety of activities on a daily basis which involve, and sometimes create, a multitude of hazardous situations. These hazards are both physical and financial. The potential impact of these hazards is not just to the individuals but to the organization as well… The overarching authority of the organization (local, state, or federal government), the people, those working within the organization, and those served by it, are potential victims.Hutto's "Risk Management in Law Enforcement: A Model Assessment Tool" isn't only about the police as potential victims of the public. Cops are also, notoriously, victims of alcoholism. A section of the Austin PD's "General Orders, Policies and Procedures" is quoted.
Drinking alcohol by adults is a widely practiced social activity which does not violate any law and is often considered a natural part of participating in group recreational activities. As a result, there is more social pressure to drink than to be disciplined in drinking… Because of its short-term numbing effects, alcohol is also used to relax and to manage mental stress and emotional pain. As a result, people can develop a dependence on alcohol to relax or to avoid the discomfort of stressful living.See, when a cop drinks, that person is engaging, perhaps under social pressure, in a legitimate recreational activity which is also a relaxation technique for the management of mental stress and emotional pain. When a street person drinks, that person is a scumbag who needs to have the crap knocked out of him.
To sum up, it would appear that, in addition to writing papers on applied research projects, the new Fort Collins police chief is a taser-happy cowboy who doesn't care what the courts say. Great. Just what we need, in a town full of college students and retirees.
Especially in the light of the current effort to close down the Medical Marijuana Centers (whose fate at the moment of this writing is not yet known.) If the MMCs stay, Hutto doesn't sound like the type of guy to be very cooperative with their existence. If the MMCs go, a whole lot of local patients will be starting grow rooms in their homes, and this dude sounds like exactly the wrong kind of police chief to be turned loose around that situation.
Maybe these few internet finds have given a slanted impression, and John Hutto will turn out to be the best possible police chief a city could wish for. Maybe he's a great guy. Perhaps pessimism is unwarranted.
And maybe it's just me, but this whole risk assessment palaver sounds like fancied-up academic talk for what has become the main feature of the police culture, showing it to be just as fucked up, in its own way, as the criminal culture. Probably 99 out of 100 law enforcement officers believe that making sure they don't get hurt is the most important part of the job. Since touching an officer is the most heinous crime possible to commit, any cop has an irreproachable, irrefutable excuse for beating the shit out of anyone. Given the merest shadow of a suspicion of a threat to a cop, all bets are off -- it's open season and anything goes. And once a perpetrator is known to have done some actual damage, however slight, a cop can get away with murder.
With all due respect to good cops, there is something wrong when officer safety is the number one priority of the policing job. Firefighters also risk their lives, and lots of them lose their lives. But even if a firefighter bumps into an arsonist at the scene of a raging inferno, there is no blanket permission to summarily execute that arsonist for endangering the lives of firefighters. EMTs, doctors, and nurses are in constant danger of being infected with life-threatening conditions through their contacts with sick and injured people. But they're not allowed to pull out a gun at the emergency room door and shoot an accident victim who happens to have AIDS. Even teachers are at risk. But they don't have the right to show up at school armed for self-protection.
When a police force exists with the primary mission of protecting its own members against the populace, something is direly out of order. Why do police get a free pass to kill?
Related recommendation: Debbie Russell's articles on the doings in Austin